Restaurant trends — The year in review

by Monica Watrous
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KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Severe winter weather impeded restaurant traffic early in the year, but trends gradually improved in the months that followed. Still, operators have remained less than bullish on the direction of the economy and a slow recovery in consumer confidence.

Fast-casual chains continued to lead restaurant growth in the United States, according to Technomic Inc., a Chicago-based market research firm. The segment posted an 11 percent increase in sales and nearly an 8 percent increase in units in 2013. With better-burger concepts, Mexican chains, bakery-cafes and sandwich shops on the rise, the fast-casual landscape continues to become more diverse.

Meanwhile, casual dining chains have scrambled to regain share by overhauling anything from menus, logos and restaurant interiors. The segment still suffered a post-recession lag, growing only 2 percent in 2013 behind quick-service at 2.8 percent and fast casual at 11 percent, according to Technomic. And research from The NPD Group, Chicago, revealed that consumer traffic to casual-dining restaurants reached a six-year low for the year ended Feb. 28, 2014.

Fast-food chains also have struggled to recapture growth. Taking a page from such fast-casual players as Chipotle Mexican Grill and Five Guys Burgers and Fries, many chains have simplified menus to reduce operational complexity or prioritized premium products to match the perception of quality found in better-burger and burrito concepts.

Breaking in to breakfast

Taco Bell in March launched a national breakfast platform, prompting a flurry of fast-food chains to enter the day part or expand their a.m. offerings. Chick-fil-A began testing breakfast items, and White Castle debuted a trio of Belgian waffle sandwiches, as examples.

But lunch remains a hot opportunity for operators. While convenience and quick service are important factors at lunchtime, consumers crave more variety during the day part. Eighty percent of consumers, up from 70 percent in 2011, want higher-quality and more-unique items on lunch menus, according to a report from Technomic Inc.

Some chains are expanding in the breakfast day part, while others are focused on refining lunch menus.

“There are definitely opportunities to take share in the lunch day part,” said Sara Monnette, senior director of consumer insights and innovation at Technomic. “Promotion of premium, limited-time items, staggered portion sizes and better-for-you menu specialties could help capture customer attention and drive midday traffic.”

The availability of better-for-you options and smaller portions influences a consumer’s purchasing decision, Technomic said. Three out of 10 consumers expect restaurants to offer smaller portions at lunchtime, and 36 percent eat a lighter midday meal during the week. The number skews higher for women, with 40 percent favoring a sized-down serving during the week.

Organic down, gluten-free up

Though most consumers view dining out as an opportunity to indulge, healthy options at restaurants are of increasing importance, especially to women, according to Technomic, which tracked consumer perceptions of recent experiences at 128 top chains. Availability and quality of better-for-you items were considered important or very important at fast-casual and full-service concepts for at least 69 percent of consumers, while a slightly smaller percentage (66 percent) said they seek healthy options at quick-service restaurants. But what consumers consider healthy varies widely.

“Organic” claims have declined on restaurant menus, while such terms as “gluten-free,” “made from scratch” and “signature” grew between the fourth quarter of 2010 to 2013, according to Mintel, a Chicago-based market research firm.

While “organic” remained the leading ethical claim on menus, its usage dropped 28 percent during the period, due in part to higher costs associated with such items. Additionally, operators have used a wider variety of terms to describe how food is prepared and from where it was sourced.

All nutritional claims on menus grew 14 percent, and geographic claims climbed 12 percent. Homemade cues such as “original recipe,” “freshly-picked” and “farm style” also are rising. “Made from scratch” contributed 10 percent to overall growth of all restaurant menu claims, and the word “signature” increased 34 percent.

Also posting healthy growth were allergen-related claims, such as “gluten-free,” which increased 200 percent and accounted for 40 percent of the total growth in ingredient nutritional claims on menus during the time period. From Chicago-style deep-dish pizza crust to hamburger buns to sandwich wraps, gluten-free items have marked a dramatic rise on menus.

Authenticity and craftsmanship have become increasingly important to restaurant customers. Growing on menus are such terms as “artisanal,” “house-made” and “rustic,” all conveying skillful preparation.
Ingredient sourcing and ethnic cuisine are ways in which operators may convey authenticity. In the pizza category, for example, Neopolitan-style pies have bubbled up as a top trend.

Chicken flocking to menus

With beef and pork prices on the rise, a number of innovative new chicken menu items debuted at Chick-fil-A, KFC, Domino’s Pizza and others. Marking its first launch since 2012, Domino’s new Specialty Chicken platform featured traditional pizza toppings, cheese and sauces layered on pieces of lightly breaded boneless chicken.

Bob Evans this year introduced a "broasted" chicken platform in its restaurants.

Benefitting from versatility in flavor profile and preparation, as well as a better-for-you perception, chicken topped the list of most common ingredients, descriptors and preparations on menus in appetizers, entrees, sides and desserts in 2013, with a 96 percent penetration across Datassential’s MenuTrends Database of US chain and independent restaurants.

Chicken chains have shown above average growth among top limited-service restaurant chains, according to Technomic. Sales for the sub-segment grew 5.1 percent in 2013, compared with a 3.5 percent increase for the 500 largest US restaurant chains overall.

Hybrids are hot

From the Cronut to the Waffle Taco, mashups have had a moment on menus. Innova Market Insights, Duiven, The Netherlands, identified hybrid innovation as a top food trend of 2014.

On restaurant menus, such odd couplings draw interest and generate trial. Examples introduced during the year included the Soft Pretzel Crust Pizza from Little Caesars, a burrito-quesadilla mashup at Taco Bell, and Cheesy Bread Dogs at Sonic Drive-In.

Taco Bell's Waffle Taco was one of many mash-ups to appear on menus.

“They are really meant to generate buzz, drive some PR, certainly to create traffic, and also to a certain extent, to give the consumer some bragging rights in terms of being the first one on the block to try it,” said Nancy Kruse, president of The Kruse Co., Atlanta, during a presentation at Technomic’s Restaurants Trends & Directions Conference, held June 18 in Chicago.

Smoke and fire

Sizzling on mainstream menus are branded hot sauces such as sriracha, new peppers and spices, and a surge of ethnic cuisines. Jack in the Box, for example, introduced Jack’s Blazin’ Chicken Sandwich, topped with a ghost pepper-ranch sauce and Swiss-style cheese.

Not just for barbecue, smoky flavors are on fire in both food and beverage. Charring also has gained steam in independent restaurants, suggesting influences from Nordic cuisine. Examples include Arby’s Smokehouse Brisket Sandwich and Papa John’s Smokehouse pizza, the latter of which includes hickory-smoked bacon and ham.

Technology more important

From tabletop tablets to digital loyalty programs to updated point-of-sale systems, technology is becoming a bigger priority for national restaurant chains, as they aim to improve service quality and speed as well as engagement with millennials.

Rolling out from Panera Bread is a new technology platform that integrates digital ordering, payment and service. Designed to streamline operations, Panera 2.0 offers advanced mobile ordering, tabletop ordering and “fast-lane” kiosks for dine-in and to-go ordering, in addition to cashier stations, to reduce wait time. The digital ordering process allows customers to store customized orders and credit card information for speedier service.

Some foodservice chains have added tabletop tablets for convenient ordering and payment in-store, while others have launched ordering apps.

The roll-out of Ziosk tabletop tablets at Chili’s during the year not only has improved efficiency in its restaurants by allowing users to order refills and add-ons. The technology also has delivered useful customer feedback that the company may leverage to improve customer experience.

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